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Gaming Guru

Chris Jones
 

Las Vegas Tourist Count Tops 3 Million in September

16 November 2004

For the eighth time in nine tries this year, Las Vegas' hotels, casinos, restaurants and conventions in September combined to lure more than 3 million visitors to town in a single month.

And while a typical autumn travel slowdown pushed local visitor volume down slightly for the second consecutive month, September's 3.12 million traveler tally was still 9.7 percent better than the same period a year ago, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority said Monday.

Only April, which enjoyed a 10.5 percent gain vs. 2003, showed a stronger month-over-month improvement this year, the authority said.

Year-to-date, Las Vegas' visitor volume was nearly 28.3 million, or 5.5 percent better than the first nine months of 2003. More significantly, that total was 4.4 percent better than the first nine months of 2000, the city's full-year record holder with 35.85 million visitors.

Barring a major interruption, a new visitor record will likely be set sometime in mid-December.

This September benefited from several calendar quirks that worked against month-over-month comparisons just one month prior, most notably that this year's Labor Day holiday and Men's Apparel Guild in California MAGIC Marketplace trade show were entirely within the ninth month.

In 2003, MAGIC took place in late August, while Labor Day weekend straddled that month and September. Those events' absence from this year's August calendar caused its monthly visitor count to dip by 1.1 percent vs. 2003, the only period this year that declined vs. 2003.

MAGIC's September stop fueled a 99.1 percent increase in local convention traffic, which jumped from 285,500 last year to 568,325 in September 2004. Citywide occupancy levels also improved by 8 percentage points to 90.9 percent.

Hotel and motel guests paid an average daily rate of $90.48 in September, up 12.2 percent from last year's $80.66 monthly average. The citywide average through the year's first nine months reached $89.19, an 8.5 percent improvement from 2003.

Data supplied by Vegas.com, a locally based online travel reservation service, showed visitors who used its Web site in September weren't necessarily looking for bargains. Four- and five-star rooms were booked three times more often than in September 2003, spokeswoman Pamela Johnston said. Overall room rates booked on Vegas.com were up 40 percent from the same month a year ago, she added.

Inquiries to Vegas.com's posted sports betting pagers were also busier than in September 2003, a development Johnston said stemmed from increased interest in this season's Major League Baseball playoffs. Vegas.com provides odds on sporting events but does not accept wagers.

September's monthly visitor total was nearly 45,700 below August's count, which in turn was 33,600 visitors below July's 3.2 million. John Piet, senior research analyst for the convention authority, said the downward trend is typical for the time of year as summer leisure travel winds down before the fall convention season picks up steam in October.

Mesquite's visitor volume surged during the month. Aided by some new and continuing gaming promotions, the Virgin River resort hosted 141,689 September visitors, up 11 percent from a year ago. Through the first nine months of 2004, its 1.32 million visitors increased 1.4 percent from 2003.

"We held the Oasis Open, a seven-day poker tournament, for the first time this year," said Marty Rapson, marketing director for four Mesquite resorts owned by the Black brothers. "Outside of that, it just seems that there's been more interest in Mesquite lately."

Returns weren't as good from Laughlin, whose September visitor tally of 306,199 was nearly 22,500 visitors, or 6.8 percent, less than a year ago. Through the year's first nine months, Laughlin's nearly 3.16 million visitor count was down 2.9 percent compared with 2003.

by Rod Smith

Closeness to home aces out other factors when Las Vegas locals are deciding where to gamble, a new survey by Goldman Sachs Global Investment Research found.

In the Goldman Sachs survey released Friday, 21 percent of respondents said they decided which casino to frequent based on its location, compared with 12 percent who decided based on the atmosphere and friendliness of the casino.

Goldman Sachs analyst Steve Kent noted the results differed from those reported in the last survey two years ago. That survey found locals rated a casino's environment about equally as important as its location.

Susquehanna Financial Group gaming analyst Eric Hausler said the survey results are consistent with long-term behavioral patterns and suggested that casino customers typically are looking for comfortable environments as close to home as possible.

However, Kent noted that while locals gaming companies in the past concentrated on building first-class casinos and setting up customer loyalty programs, once those twin challenges have been met, closeness to home becomes paramount for locals customers.

The power of location, Kent said, helps explain the importance locals companies have attached to snapping up as many licensed gaming sites in population centers around the valley and may affect advertising and promotion spending in the future, since it raises questions about whether this type of marketing has any impact on customer behavior.

However, Jim Medick, chief executive officer of the MRC Group, Nevada's largest market research and public polling firm, said the Goldman Sachs survey results rely on use of rewards programs to measure customer loyalty and may oversimplify market conditions.

While locals in some instances may not use player cards when they are gambling, they still sign up for them and decide where to play based on where the best bargains and promotions are, he said.

Second, location takes a back seat in areas where more than one casino compete head-to-head in a single neighborhood, Medick said.

He cited both Suncoast competing with the Rampart Casino and Fiesta Rancho competing with Texas Station.

"All things being equal, you'll go closest to home, which is why casinos are being located in population centers. But when you have more than one, proximity is not the answer. Service, amenities and loyalty programs come in to play then. That's why they are so important," Medick said.

The survey of 300 valley residents who play at casinos at least four times a year found Station Casinos continues to be the leading locals brand name although Boyd Gaming Corp. is gaining ground. Other locals operators trailed and slipped in population since 2002.

Medick said the survey findings underscored the importance of understanding the locals market. It found 73 percent of local consumers visit a casino at least once a month and 39 percent visit a casino weekly.

And while 66 percent of the local consumers spend less than $100 per visit at locals casinos, they make up for the lack in volume with frequency.

Bucking popular wisdom, the Goldman Sachs also found the preference for cashless slot machines is dropping, with 49 percent preferring cashless machines compared with 59 percent two years ago.

Also, customer loyalty cards are falling in favor, with only 4 percent of respondents saying they pick a casino based on its rewards programs.

The survey also found that brand loyalty is on the rise; Station Casinos is widely seen as the best product, with Boyd Gaming coming up fast; and slot machines made by International Game Technology are preferred over other manufacturers' devices.

Consistent with its 2002 survey, Goldman Sachs found some Las Vegas customers are still Strip-shy. One-third of the respondents say they never visit a Strip casino, up slightly from 31 percent two years ago.